Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.
Together they make up STEM.
Of course, those who study STEM subjects in college and go on to take
jobs in STEM related fields are the ones who end up researching,
developing, and creating things that change lives.
One example that easily comes to mind is the double helix model of DNA.
Francis Crick and James Watson won Nobel prizes for their work for
developing a better model of DNA. From this research we now have the
knowledge that DNA is set up as a double helix. Though this seems
unimpressive today, without understanding the concept of how DNA is set
up then further research into how DNA is replicated and arranged would not
be possible. Nor could there be research into how genetic diseases are
caused or passed on, or possible treatments for such ailments.
Though scientists have barely scraped the surface of such a vast ocean of
knowledge, they have still come a long way from the beginning.
And Watson and Crick deserve the credit for getting that started.
well, not entirely.
Watson and Crick did have a model of which they thought DNA was
supposed to look like. Yet, by chance, Watson got a look at research done by
another scientist, Rosalind Franklin. It was her work that initiated an idea in
Watson who would then rework his findings to come up with the current
model of DNA that is accepted today, the double helix.
Rosalind Franklin would not receive any credit for her work until after her
death in 1958.
While this may seem to be just a footnote in the volumes of history, it still
bears noting; at the time that Crick and Watson were about to publish their
findings, Franklin had also finished her work and was closer to publishing.
It should also be mentioned that at this time in Franklins life she was
working on transferring from Kings College where she had found herself at
odds with the staff, to Birkbeck College. It may have been she was the only
women working there, it have been her cold demeanor, or some of both?
Either way Franklin was not satisfied with her standing there and had
decided to leave.
What could have been?
Rosalind Franklin is one of the most prominent role models for women in
STEM majors and related career paths.
Yet, what if her colleagues had chosen not to look upon her as a lab
technician, but as an equal?
What if shed been in an environment where she did not feel threatened?
What if her own father had not been against her going to college,
something he was opposed to all women doing?
What other innovations and discoveries could Rosalind Franklin
accomplished in her life?
While she is one of the most prominent role models for women in STEM
majors and related career paths, she is also a haunting example of the
difficulties that women face when they choose to pursue a STEM related
major in college, or a career path.
Even today, nearly seventy years later, women occupy only 24% of the
STEM careers and related jobs, while men take up the other roughly 75%.
What innovations could we be missing out on?
Why is it so hard?
STEM fields and their related careers, as one could easily assume, are not
for the faint of heart. Persistence, determination, relentlessness would be
required, though no one will put that on a job description. This is due, in
large part, to the higher amount of mental preparation needed before one can
even begin a bachelors degree in college.
Careers in this field deal with hefty amounts of research, development,
preparation, disappointment, and analysis. High levels of math, a firm grasp
of spatial relations, and advanced problem solving skills are just the
beginning of the requirements that one would need to succeed.
One possible culprit for this? Maybe its the M in STEM?
Obviously, math is a difficult subject. If at first adding one to two doesnt
come easily, then just wait until negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and
for reasons unbeknownst to sane people, there are imaginary numbers out
there as well.
And thats just the beginning
Because men occupy over 75% of the STEM jobs out there, then its easy
to assume that men, for some genetic reason, are just better at math.
In an experiment, conducted within the psychology department of the
University of Michigan, 30 female students and 24 male students, all in their
freshman year, took a section of the GRE in math. All the students involved
strongly identified with math. Yet, when the group was split in two, one
group was told that, generally, male students had performed better on this
section of the GRE than female students.
On a test of 30 questions, when corrected for guessing, the male students,
on average, scored 25 out of 30.
The female students?
On average, they scored five out of 30.
What about that second group?
The second group of test-takers were told that both genders had scored
well on the test. Men didnt do better than women, and women didnt do
better than men.
The scores came back that the women in the group, on average and after
correcting for guesses, had results of 17 out of 30. The men? 19 out of 30.
So while it may still show that men have an advantage, maybe genetically,
maybe arbitrarily, that when the gender bias is taken out of the equation,
women perform substantially higher.
Then why arent more women in STEM Careers?
While there are those who do exit college and enter the STEM careers,
there is attrition happening, and at an even higher rate among women.
This may be in part to the gender bias that STEM Careers are a mans
job. It may also have to do with women needing to take time off to start and
raise a family, something men generally dont do. This could end up hurting
women in careers that are tenure track, or being seen as less committed in
their work than their male counterparts. The results being women are given
less fulfilling tasks, or end up not coming back to their jobs. It may also have
to do with women marrying outside of their job field.
While there is ongoing research as to why women are not sticking with
their STEM Career after college, there is a new movement taking place to
keep women in their current positions.
Its been suggested that women who do find themselves in an environment
where they do not feel welcome can try to find a mentor. If one isnt easy to
find then join a professional organization. Its also been suggested that
women educate themselves on gender differences in communication.
While these suggestions are helpful and it can help shift the overall feel in
a work environment away from male-centric, it is still a short term solution
to the problem.
What if women are recruited more in higher education for STEM
True, men do occupy more of the STEM field than women do. But
wouldnt a simple fix be to initiate greater recruitment of women into STEM
That could work.
However, one must also take into account that not all those who graduate
with a STEM degree, both women and men, will go on to get a job in the
Men earn 82% of bachelor degrees in Engineering,
Women only earn 18%
Men earn 82% of bachelor degrees in Computer Sciences,
Women only earn 18%
Men earn 81% of bachelor degrees in Physics,
Women only earn 19%
When it comes to graduation, of the STEM degrees as a whole, only 30.7%
of those degrees earned are by women. Since not all of those who graduate
with a STEM degree enter a STEM field, this possibly leads to the 24% of
women in STEM careers.
Going the Distance.
The lack of women represented in STEM careers can be attributed to the
low number of women seeking STEM majors when they enter college. As
with those who enter the job field and then decide to leave, the number of
women who end up graduating with a degree in a STEM related major are
significantly lower than those who start them.
Could it possibly be the difficulty of their chosen major?
As mentioned before, these career paths and their preceding educational
requirements are daunting. If there is a lack of ability to begin with, then
there is a higher likelihood that a student will bow out before completion.
Part of the reason, as with anyone whos gone through college can attest, a
student may have started one degree, found out it wasnt for them, and
switched majors to find something more to their liking. Something with less
What if said student, especially a woman, wasnt lacking in mathematical
ability at all?
They simply thought they were lacking?
In a male-dominated field, when those surrounding a female student are
doing better when it comes to the large amount of analytical work involved,
then its easy for that struggling student to think of herself as inadequate.
And while students will change majors throughout their undergraduate
careers, if it were possible to instill in them, from an early age, especially
women, that they were not just not good at this, could it lead to lower
attrition rates in STEM majors?
What if it could have the opposite effect; a rise in women entering into
such degrees, and then onto a career path in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics?
Or to ask the question in another way; what innovations are we missing out
on if women continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers?
Perception is Key
As mentioned before, men make up over 75% of the STEM fields. This
leads to the unconscious assumption that men are just better at it. This is in
no way meant to take away from the men who have made discoveries that
have changed the course of history.
But if men are the only ones seen doing it, what does that say to girls in
While elevating female role models into the collective consciousness will
help foster a better environment for girls and young women to enter the
sciences, there is more that can be done.
But first, perception has to change.
Carol Dweck, a social and developmental psychologist at Stanford
University, has spoken about the need for students to stop seeing themselves
as smart. They instead need to switch from a way of thinking where if one
doesnt get it immediately, then they must not be good at it all. This kind
of thinking drives students away from struggle. And struggle is key in
STEM degrees and careers.
We talk about [struggle] as an unfortunate thing, but when
you think about a career in science or math or anything, of
course you struggle. Thats the name of the game! If youre
going to discover something new or invent something new, its
a struggle. Carol Dweck, Why so Few?
Many a student today, while not intentionally, has been taught that if they
understand something right away, theyre smart. If they struggle with
something, thats not wrong, the student just needs to work harder to get it.
Theyre not smart at it, thus, they have to work harder for it. Thus students
become skilled at avoiding subjects they struggle with.
This leads to the unconscious knowledge that intelligence is fixed. There
are those that are born with the talent for solving mathematical equations.
And generally, those are boys.
Girls are the ones who have to work harder at math, and thus, they just
arent smart enough for a STEM job.
They would have to struggle in order to succeed.
According to Dweck, what if that perception was changed?
Fixed v. Growth
The type of thinking outlined previously is what Dweck refers to as a
fixed mindset. Intelligence is an inborn, uncontrolled trait. If one is good at
something, then theyre born to be good at that, while if they struggle with
something, then they werent born to do that, and thus, should avoid it.
But what if intelligence were viewed as a muscle?
Muscles can be trained, conditioned, improved upon through systematic
and intentional exercise.
A brain can be handled that way as well.
Brains can be trained, conditioned, and improved upon through systematic
and intentional exercise.
This is a growth mindset. Intelligence is a changeable, malleable attribute
that can be developed through effort, says Dweck in Why so Few?
A growth mindset leads students to believe that even if they dont
understand something right away, thats okay. Mastery takes time. Mastery
involves mistakes. Mistakes can be learned from. Mistakes challenge one to
grow, learn, acquire knowledge.
This type of thinking can lead students to not shy away from difficult
tasks. In some cases, students actually seek out struggles with the belief that
theyll get better through the proper application of effort and determination.
They will get smarter that way and achieve more.
Though this mindset can have a positive effect on all academic ventures, as
well as personal endeavors, the results of a growth mindset have already
shown a positive response in women.
Take, for instance, several hundred women enrolled in a calculus class at
an elite university for a semester. These women, who opted to report their
feelings on the classs general environment and how they reacted to it over
the course of the semester to a group of researchers, Carol Dweck among
them, proved the power of a growth mindset.
Of the women who identified their particular class as having a fixed
mindset, along with negative stereotypes towards women and math, at the
end of the semester they reported having less of a desire to continue taking
high level math courses. They simply felt like they didnt belong.
Yet, the women who identified their classes as promoting a growth
mindset ended the semester with a greater chance of continuing on in higher
level math. Though negative stereotypes were still in attendance at these
classes, the women reported feeling less affected by them.
A growth mindset has been shown, as Dweck says, to maintain a spark
It can all start with a spark.
Anything worthwhile is not easy. Any pursuit of a STEM degree and
subsequent STEM career are even more so.
This is why persistence, determination, relentlessness are needed more
than a grasp of spatial relations, imaginary numbers, and analytical skills.
Those who adopt a growth mindset will come to see challenges as a good
thing. That mistakes arent bad things, but something to be learned from that
will get them closer to success.
Yet fostering this mindset is not a simple task, even at an early age. But it
is not an impossible one.
Even those who are well past their school days can still change their
mindset, a little bit at a time with some effort and persistence.
According to Dweck, some key points to remember when working towards
instilling and honing a growth mindset.
Encourage passion, dedication, and self-improvement- these lead to innovations and contributions.
Value the challenges, the mistakes, and the effort- these lead to growth and learning.
Intellect can be gained- its not something someone has at birth.
Focus on process over product- a student may not get the right answer, but focusing on how the student works to solve
the problem in front of them so they worry less about getting
it right, and instead aim for mastering a process.
The Right Mindset.
Fostering the right mindset, a growth mindset, can propel anyone towards
greatness, especially women. When faced with the challenges of a STEM
career, women can become discouraged if they believe they dont get it
right away, or they started the job already lacking the fundamentals
Instead, start identifying math as a learned skill rather than something
innate in people. There may be some talent there to begin with, but it doesnt
mean thats all one has to work with.
By communicating a growth mindset, though it will take time, the effects
of negative stereotypes against women can be reduced, and eventually
become a thing of the past. Along the way more and more women can enter
colleges and universities with the intent to start and complete a STEM
degree, and move on into a STEM career.
Who knows what innovations are waiting for us?
Energy and persistence conquer all things.- Benjamin Franklin
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